Dying is easy; comedy is hard, the saying goes. And when it comes to the art of funny business, the Oscars are a particularly tough nut to crack. It’s not unheard of for a comedian to grab recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — and in a few rare cases, an actual award — by making people laugh. But usually, when an actor who the public primarily associates with hilarity wants to contend for the gold, the best bet is to switch gears and go serious. Who knows whether there was a lot of chatter about nominating Steve Carell for his turn in The 40-Year-Old Virgin back in 2005, or for giving Michael Keaton some back-to-back Oscar back slaps for Night Shift in 1982 and Mr. Mom in 1983. But this year, the two men are vying for the Best Actor honor — by respectively playing a psychotic in a prosthetic nose (Foxcatcher) and an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Birdman), both dramatic turns.
The Academy Awards have a long history of finding a place for comedians at the table if they’re willing to turn that smile upside down, and for folks like Robin Williams and Mo’Nique, it’s paid off handsomely. Here are 18 comedians who nabbed Oscar nominations (and occasionally a statuette as well) by dialing down the funny. Some were comic actors who had dabbled in screen seriousness before; others were dipping their toe in dramatic waters for the first time. All of them got within spitting distance of the “and the winner is” envelope by leaving the yuks at home.